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Why Some East Tennesseans Drink Raw Milk

United States Food and Drug Administration

Nine East Tennessee children recently contracted E.coli after drinking raw, unpasteurized milk.  It came from the McBee Dairy Farm, located near Knoxville.  Yesterday, the Tennessee Department of Health announced it matched the strain of E.coli to animal waste at the farm, and says there are serious risks for people who choose raw milk.  Three of the children developed a severe kidney problem known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, and one family now faces an estimated $125,000 in hospital bills.


Kay Sanford lives in Chattanooga, and she says she avoids processed foods and drinks raw milk because it contains live enzymes that pasteurization would kill.

“I like to eat whole foods,” Sanford says.  “I like to buy my food at the farmer’s market, I like to grow my food.  I am of the opinion that it’s healthier than what is provided to me by the industries.”

Sanford says she gets about half a gallon a week, and she goes across the state line to do it.

“I get it from a small farm in North Georgia.  I know the cow, I know the farmer.”

Sanford found this farmer through word-of-mouth.  Farmers in Tennessee and Georgia are not supposed to sell raw milk for human consumption; it’s against the law.  Some farmers may do it anyway, for friends, or friends of friends.

“I know people, lots of other people, who drink raw milk,” Sanford says.


In 2009, a legal option was established in Tennessee.  Herd shares are arrangements that allow consumers to buy dairy cows—it’s kind of like owning a dairy-cow timeshare.

“Or you could liken it to having multiple owners in a horse,” says Suzanne Morgan, who owns Echo Valley Farm in Lancing, Tennessee.  “If you know anything about horse racing, you know that sometimes there's multiple owners in a horse.”

Consumers pay $30 to become partial owners of Echo Valley's five-cow herd, plus they pay a monthly boarding fee.  Consumers who do that are considered part-owners, so they get a share of the milk—specifically one gallon every week.  They are supposed to bring clean empty glass containers when they want to pick up some of their raw milk.

“You are welcome to come to the farm anytime except weekends,” Morgan says.  “We do ask to have a little bit of privacy because we live here.  But anyone is welcome to come to the farm to pick up their milk.  We have a milk delivery also in Knoxville, on Thursdays.”

Closer to Chattanooga, Fall Creek Farms offers a herd share, and makes deliveries to Chattanooga and Cookeville.  However, they declined to be interviewed.

McBee Dairy Farm, linked to the recent E.coli outbreak, also offers herd shares.  Although nine children were hospitalized from the outbreak, the farm has been cleared to re-open, and some customers plan to keep getting raw milk from McBee.


At Echo Valley Farm, Suzanne Morgan encourages people to come see her cows.  She says she heat-sanitizes her milking equipment and tests batches of milk for bacteria.

“When we milk, we are extremely careful that the cows are very, very clean when we milk them, as to not contaminate the milk potentially,” Morgan says.

Some raw milk drinkers believe small farms can produce safe unpasteurized milk, as opposed to large, industrialized dairies.  In industrialized, factory farming, cows may be crowded together indoors, passing germs to each other.  But on small farms, cows are allowed to roam on pastures, and may get better treatment and live healthier lives than on factory farms.

“I wouldn’t want to buy milk from a cow I didn’t know,” Kay Sanford says.

However, even with a conscientious farmer and clean cows, the CDC advises against drinking raw milk.


Raw milk is touted as a way to ameliorate allergies.  Some studies indicate that children who drink raw milk may suffer from fewer allergies than children who drink pasteurized milk—but conclusive proof has not yet been found.

People who are lactose intolerant sometimes try raw milk, believing it is easier to digest than pasteurized milk.  However, a 2010 study by Stanford University failed to support such claims.

The CDC says raw milk does have more active enzymes than pasteurized milk—but the CDC also says enzymes in raw animal milk are not thought to be important in human health.

According to the CDC, pasteurized milk is just as healthy as raw milk.

“All of the nutritional benefits of drinking milk are available from pasteurized milk without the risk for disease that comes with drinking raw milk,” Dr. Robert Tauxe says in a CDC video.

Raw milk proponents say, if there is a risk, then they should have the right to take that risk.